Research Point Still Life: Dutch masters and since (p57 of guide)
Dutch Still Life of the 17th Century
The Dutch ‘Golden Age’ for still-life painting in the 17th Century, coincided with Holland becoming the most prosperous nation in Europe. This signalled a move away from religious to secular subjects, often reflecting something about the patron who commissioned the work. Unlike other expressions of the Baroque, the Dutch often focused on everyday subjects but with heavy symbolism and iconography and extreme detailed realism in rendition of textures and forms (but modifying reality and perspective to suit composition and colour theory). Berger (2011:6) suggests that the Dutch still life expressed ‘truthiness’ - what we want the facts to be, as opposed to what the facts are. “The spirit of iconography; the objective of the vanitas”.
Figure 1: Pieter Claesz (1597–1660), Still life with Musical Instruments (1623) https://www.wga.hu/support/viewer/z.html
In this early work (Figure 1), Claesz uses a monochrome palette but with some ‘pops’ of different hues such as red (wine), orange and bright yellow. The picture uses extreme contrast between the black background and the objects – some of which recede into darkness. The objects suggest a successful middle-class life with interests in music, the natural sciences (hence the tortoise), good food and wine. The watch is open, suggesting the passing of time (and shortness of life) but also a person whose time is important (and can afford to measure it). Claesz experiments with light (from top left) and reflection (e.g. of the wine glass). The picture is quite like a stage set with everything carefully placed for aesthetic effect. The objects are mostly separate with little overlapping. The bass violin in the foreground seems slightly odd in height, size and perspective and the composition as a whole doesn’t feel as if it’s real, so much as representational. “His compositions look plausible yet are sometimes difficult to recreate with actual objects” (Lowenthal, 2003). The composition is pretty horizontal with a slight diagonal feel from right to left. Overall, (as with some of the flower paintings below, it more a set of realistically rendered objects than a realistically rendered whole. Unlike later works, it doesn’t feel like someone has just left or might return. (see author notes Figure 2).
Figure 2: Author’s notes using the OCA Guide – ‘looking at artists’
Figure 3: Breakfast Still-Life, 1646 Pieter Claesz
In this later example (Figure 3), Claesz has used a very restrained palette, almost monochrome sepia, to focus on light and shade and depth. The background, for example, is lighter where the objects are darker (by the chalice for example), and vice versa (by the bread for example). The composition is integrated on two diagonals meeting on the right and it feels as if the person eating the breakfast is still around. The textures and values are very carefully rendered so the observer knows exactly what the objects are and how they sit with each other. Each object could be picked up. Bread, wine and fish are all icons of faith (based on religious imagery). On the other hand, the orange, wine and oysters all suggest wealth and indulgence. “wine might suggest the Eucharist, but it also connoted pleasurable indulgence and even drunkenness. Thus the viewer could contemplate the relative merit of spiritual and worldly values, an activity pertinent to Calvinist-dominated Dutch mercantile society”(Lowenthal, 2003). The picture is much more ‘naturalistic’ composition than Figure 1) as it looks like the people could return at any minute and carry on eating. Although it is obviously posed, it is much more human. These types of works tended to be bought by Dutch middle class. (See author notes Figure 4)
Figure 4: : Author’s notes using the OCA Guide – ‘looking at artists’
Figure 5: Vanitas, Pieter Claesz http://arthistoryblogger.blogspot.com/2011/06/history-as-seen-through-dutch-still.html
Figure 5 is an example of the ‘vanitas. Genre which used skulls and other icons to ask the observer to consider life and death. Once again it uses a restricted palette but extensive use of light and dark contrasts, modifying the background as needed top suit the foreground object.
Dutch Flower Painting in the 17th Century
In the 17th Century, Dutch flower paintings reflected success in the importation and cultivation of exotic blooms as well as the restricted ownership of gardens by the wealthy and the very high price of flowers themselves “The price of a finished work by even so successful and highly-paid a specialist as Ambrosius Bosschaert the elder was probably exceeded by that of the flowers he depicted” (Mitchell, 2003:2). This followed, and also incorporated, a tradition of flower painting as religiously symbolic, with the Iris, for example, representing the Virgin Mary (Mitchell, 2003). They tended to portray a great many varieties in full flower (which often would not have actually bloomed together) and therefore led to packed pictures. They were often portrayed with symbolic insects or other icons and the use of dead or dying blooms was a form of ‘vanitas’ reminding the observer of death and the ‘vanity of life’.
Figure 6: Jan Brueghel the Elder 1599 Small Bouquet of Flowers in a Ceramic Vase [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Brueghel’s painting (Figure 6) focuses on presenting and enhanced but realistic image of each individual flower. The group as a whole comprises and amazing number of different varieties (which would never have bloomed together) and is also unrealistic in the number and variety crammed into the vase. As well as the symbolism of the flowers themselves, it includes obviously iconic symbols such as discarded coins and jewellery (insubstantiality of wealth), dropped petals (vanitas) and so on. The painting is quite loose and brushwork is visible “Breughel ‘draws’ vigorously in paint with the brush in the manner of Rubens’s oil studies “ (Mitchell, 2003:5) and his works were produced quite quickly. The effect is vibrant and dynamic.
Figure 7: Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, Still-Life of Flowers, 1614 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ambrosius_Bosschaert_the_Elder_(Dutch_-_Flower_Still_Life_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
Bosschaert’s painting (Figure 7) shows flowers that would not bloom at the same time. The short-lived flowers and dragon-fly suggest brevity of life and the transience of beauty. Also, the butterfly, for example, is symbolic of the soul flying into the after-life in heaven ((Mitchell, 2003).
Tightly composed, centralised circle, accurate but enhanced, overlapping minimal to show off each flower. “Bosschaert returned day after day to a tulip to build up a glazed perfection, where the evidence of hand and brush are gradually eliminated,” (Mitchell, 2003:5)
Like the still life paintings, the farthest flowers disappear into the black background which emphasises the brightness of the nearer flowers. The colour scheme is naturalistic but highly vibrant (a bit like hyper-realism), as they wanted to portray real plants but at their most attractive (a bit like the application of hyper-real painting in food advertising). I generally find them too packed, posed and a bit stiff and formal but this was their intention – to express the wonderful variety and bounty of gorgeous exotic blossoms made possible by the great Dutch nation, whilst also giving moral messages.
Figure 8: Jan Davidsz. de Heem mid 17th C Vase of Flowers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Later flower painters (Figure 8) were less formal, more loosely painted and concerned about depth and realism of the group as a whole (as with the development of still life paintings from collections of objects to integrated whole pictures). The flowers’ chroma is reduced as they are farther back, the dark background is used to highlight the bright flowers and there is more foliage, seed pods and so on to provide contrast and naturalism. You could feel that someone could walk off with the bunch of flowers in the same way that someone could return to carry on eating in Figure 3.
Still Life in the 20thCentury
Figure 9: Vincent van Gogh, ‘Sunflowers' (1889) (Photo: The National Gallery via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)
Van Gogh’s early works comprised simple realistic paintings of peasants (in line with a ‘simple peasant toiling at god’s work philosophical idea)and he didn’t experience modern impressionist art till his mid-thirties when he lived in Paris. He admired Seurat’s pointillism (but didn’t have the patience) and studied and used colour in particular as well as impasto after Adolphe Monticelli. In common with many of his contemporaries, he was interested in and admired Japanese woodcuts with their flat perspective and blocks of colour. Personal influences included Emile Bernard and Paul Gaugin who themselves were exploring simplification and abstraction. He originally wanted to be a figure painter but this “expansive ambition was and remained unobtainable” (Livingstone & Zeki 2014). He painted stage scenes to make money. Then in his late thirties he moved to the countryside of Arles. He did reed pen work when he ran out of money for paint. He painted peasant portraits, keeping the important ones for himself and making copies for others. He asked Gaugin to join him with the idea of forming an artist community, and painted the Sunflower series (Figure 9) to decorate the allocated room and impress Gaugin with his understanding of Gaugin’s ideas and method – for example, building up flat areas of saturated colours with heavy contour lines. Following arguments with Gaugin